Customer service in the auto industry, it seems, is like the weather: Everyone talks about it but no one does anything about it.
A new survey shows that new-vehicle buyers are no more satisfied with their purchase experience than purchasers were two years ago,
Customer satisfaction with dealerships and the buying process remained virtually flat in 1999, scoring 839 points out of a possible 1,000 on a survey conducted by Strategic Vision, a San Diego research company. The industry scored 838 points in 1998 and 837 in 1997.
'The point (of the study) is there's no progress being made in the industry,' said Dan Gorrell, vice president of Strategic Vision. 'The expectations customers have of dealerships are generally lower than the expectations they have for the products.'
In fact, when customers were asked to rank the buying experience based on factors such as the personal skill of the dealership staff, the negotiation process and dealership follow-up after the sale, U.S. dealerships did worse in 1999 than they did in 1998.
NO INTERNET EFFECT YET
Gorrell said he did not know how soon the changes under way in auto retailing will yield more satisfied customers. But with the Internet in particular, the balance of power between buyer and seller is shifting. For example, buyers often come to dealerships armed with the wholesale prices of the vehicles they want.
But for now, things remain pretty much as they have been for the four years he has conducted the satisfaction survey, Gorrell said.
General Motors topped the list of full-line corporations for the fourth straight year, scoring 857 out of a possible 1,000 points.
For the fourth straight year, Saturn, with 894 points, had the most satisfying purchase experience of all brands selling for less than $20,000. Saturn's success hinged on its attention to customer satisfaction and no-haggle pricing, Gorrell said.
Lexus topped the list of brands selling for more than $30,000, with a score of 911. Land Rover came in second among luxury brands with a score of 904, up 42 points from 1998.
Although Ford Motor Co., with 840 points, was one of two full-line corporations to score above industry average, customer satisfaction with all sellers of all three of its domestic brands, Ford, Lincoln and Mercury, dropped in 1999. Ford Division dropped 6 points, Mercury lost 7, and Lincoln lost 10.
'We are disappointed to see a decline, even a small one, but we think it's another good performance by our dealers,' Ford said in a statement.
Strategic Vision differentiates itself from other industry analysts by trying to measure customers' emotional response to the purchase process, Gorrell said.
In addition to questions about test-drives, product features and choice of colors, the survey asked participants to respond to statements such as: 'I felt completely comfortable with the salesperson,' and 'I felt like I was in control of the sales process.'
The survey, released last week, counted the responses of 33,000 people who bought a 1999-model vehicle in October or November of 1998 and who had owned their vehicles for at least three months before the survey.